Use PowerPoint mindfully

Photo/Dennis Sparks

A few years back I ceased using PowerPoint in favor of a more conversational approach to “presenting.” I wanted to establish a give-and-take with my school leaders about my assumptions, intentions, ideas, and recommendations for practices. I wanted to take them deeper into the content and to encourage them to formulate their own views on the subject at hand, purposes I found difficult to achieve with PowerPoint. I have had no desire to return to my previous methods, although I know that PowerPoint can be a useful tool when thoughtfully applied to achieve particular objectives.

Unfortunately, PowerPoint is often mindlessly applied, even to matters of life and death, as a New York Times article points out:

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable. . . .

“Commanders say that behind all the PowerPoint jokes are serious concerns that the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making.”

Larry Cuban adds this:

“Both in the military and higher education, PowerPoint presentations have become the dominant way to present content to students and decision-makers. An Armed Forces Journal critic entitled his analysis of PowerPoint–”Dumb-Dumb Bullet”–taking the position that the slides diminished analytic thinking and skewed decision-making in harmful ways.

“So here’s a pedagogical aid that certainly has many pluses to it in adding color to lectures with videos, photos, audios, and yes, bullet points that can give a huge lift to dry presentations. Yet the trade-offs in getting students and policymakers to think through issues and come to grips with messy problems are substantial, according to critics.”

Take a moment now to . . .

• carefully consider whether PowerPoint has unintentionally become the “default” presentation tool and in what ways the technology serves your purposes or interferes with their achievement.

3 Responses to “Use PowerPoint mindfully”

  1. 1 Mike May 24, 2010 at 7:55 am

    Good point. I’ve been concerned about Powerpoint since it began. Of course, it can be valuable and can be abused. It’s good to see a critical look at something so ubiquitous.


  2. 2 Katharine Weinmann May 25, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    Hi Dennis
    I,for the same reasons, am prudent when using powerpoint, preferring to be in the moment, responsive to and co-creating with my co-learners. In fact, I seldom go with handouts, instead creating them as we go, or sending out what we create-refer to after the event (also serves as a next action learning cue). I do enjoy PREZI and see it as a more fluid, wholistic and dynamic alternative, thought suspect this, too, might become over-used and limiting.

  3. 3 Kent Peterson September 7, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    Sparks has put PowerPoint in its place!

    If you really want to shape the culture and motivate staff and students consider telling stories and using powerful images. Stories that are rich in detail and images that communicate deep values are more likely to be remembered.

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